By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The much-anticipated return to Gateway Motorsports Park for the Verizon IndyCar Series is now in the books. Fans were treated to a fine event that saw Josef Newgarden take his fourth win on the season for Team Penske. Lets take a Monday morning look at some of the stories coming out of the St. Louis area.
1 ) Great Effort for a First Year Event
The Verizon IndyCar Series has a number of venerable events with a long history such as Long Beach, Texas, Toronto and, of course, Indianapolis. There is also a long list of failed and short-lived events that have fallen by the wayside. Every start-up event dreams of being in the former category, and Gateway is no different.
Of the events added in recent years, there is the Boston Grand Prix that became a giant black eye and a legal mess that never got off of the ground. The rain-plagued Grand Prix of New Orleans was a sloppy mess on the track, and an even sloppier mess in the courtrooms after the fact.
Other events like The Grand Prix at the Glen or the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America were successful right off the bat. These two facilities are established venues with a history of hosting successful race meetings, located in markets with a built-in fan base that loves racing.
Gateway falls somewhere in the middle here. They are an established venue with successful events in their past, however they are under new ownership and hosting the Verizon IndyCar Series is their biggest project to date.
That being said, you have to give these guys an ‘A’ for effort in their first year. They went all-out with upgrading the facilities, including shelling out a healthy sum for a total repave of the racing surface. They provided a number of fan-friendly activities to enhance the fan experience, and also managed to sign a title sponsor that promoted the heck out of the event in the local market.
With a race-day crowd estimated in the 40,000 range, this has to be considered “exceeding expectations” when compared to IndyCar oval attendance in recent years.
Whether or not the promoters actually made a profit this year is unlikely, however, the groundwork has been laid to build the event in the coming years.
2 ) Newgarden is Ready for Prime Time
I’ve been saying all year long that Newgarden is probably not going to win the Championship. My crystal ball sees him losing a close one in 2017, and winning it all in 2018.
After the last four races, where we saw three wins and a second place by the young driver from Tennessee, I may have to change my tune. This thing is far from over with a tight battle at the top of the standings, and double-points up for grabs at Sonoma. However, with only two race weekends left on the schedule, his closest rivals for the crown, namely Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud will certainly need some help in the form of a DNF out of Newgarden.
Given the solid reliability of the Chevrolet engine and Josef’s remarkable finishing record this season, that is a bit much to ask for. The best the others can hope for is that he gets caught out on a yellow, and buried in the back half of the field in one of the final two races.
The two remaining events will play out on permanent road courses. In the road courses run earlier this season, Newgarden won at both Alabama and Mid Ohio and took second at Road America. Not exactly encouraging news for Dixon et al.
3 ) The Short Oval Package is Not Ready for Prime Time
IndyCar has struggled to get the balance between downforce, horsepower, and mechanical grip right with its short oval package for quite some time. The level of difficulty to make a pass has created some fairly processional races in this configuration.
While the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 didn’t produce quite the single file parade that we saw at say, Phoenix, the lack of passing was evident. Coming off of the event at Pocono, where the superspeedway package produced a tremendous race, the issue is exacerbated.
Race winner, Newgarden, more than made up for the many laps of bland racing with a banzai pass for the win that drew the ire of his Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud. This has given us all something to write about, and reason for the fans to return next year.
All eyes now will be on the areo package for 2018 that has received high marks in testing thus far. The real proof will come next spring when we see a full field of them at Phoenix.
4 ) Salvaging a Season
Gateway saw three out of four Penske cars, and one Ganassi entry, sweep the top spots as they all have eyes on the Championship Trophy. Further down the order, there are a number of drivers hoping for any kind of decent result to salvage their season.
A.J. Foyt Racing has been absolutely dismal this year, and the past few years for that matter. Conor Daly taking the car to fifth place at Gateway has to seem encouraging at this time, but still far off of the mark that the team would like to see.
Andretti Autosport’s four drivers have just one win between them, that being Takuma Sato’s Indy 500 victory, and would like to end the season on a high note of some variety. Alexander Rossi realistically has the best shot at a win in the final two events. His past four outings have produced a pair of podiums at Toronto and Pocono coupled with two sixth place finishes at Mid Ohio and Gateway, but he hasn’t been able to match pace with the Penske cars. Time is running out.
Ed Carpenter Racing has a couple of podium finishes with J.R. Hildebrand at Phoenix and Iowa and had high hopes for Gateway. Both cars failed to finish, and now they need some magic from their road course specialist, Spencer Pigot or the team will go winless for the first time since 2013. Given Pigot’s rather mediocre 2018 season thus far, a win seems highly unlikely.
Similarly, Tony Kanaan hasn’t seen victory lane since 2013 and, amidst rumors that he is likely out at Ganassi next year, he really needs a win to increase his stock. He had a car capable of winning at Pocono, but only finished fifth. He never really had a chance at Gateway, after spinning on the pace laps.
4 ) Speaking of which….
Speaking of Tony Kanaan’s time at Ganassi coming to an end, the silly season is gearing up into full-swing. Certainly we know that Andretti Autosports rumored move to Chevrolet will be the domino that kicks off a myriad of changes for 2018.
While Michael Andretti has been tight-lipped about this, shrugging his shoulders and stating that he hopes to know something soon, this hasn’t stopped others from speculating.
A deal is reportedly already in place for Takuma Sato to move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, should Andretti join the Bowtie Brigade. This one makes perfect sense, as it will give Bobby Rahal’s team its much-desired second full-time car, and keep Takuma Sato in the Honda family.
There is still no word on the 2018 plans for Helio Castroneves other than the fact that he will remain a Team Penske driver. Whether or not he will be in an IndyCar or a Sports Car remains to be seen.
James Hinchcliffe’s contract is up for renewal at Schmidt-Peterson, and the second car on that team could go to the highest bidder. New team, Harding Racing, would like to enter a two cars in 2018, leaving an seat to fill as a teammate to Gabby Chaves.
Over at Ganassi the seats currently belonging to Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball may all be up for grabs as well.
It will be interesting to follow, but don’t expect any major announcements until the checkered flag falls at Sonoma.
Next up for the series is the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen, slated for Aug. 31 – Sept. 3, 2017.